This is good. This is really good. This deserves more of your attention than you regularly give to blogs.
Remarks like this one by Dabney show that those, such as Scott Aniol and I, who are today arguing against the use (or for very little use) of the gospel song in worship are not arguing for a novel position. The gospel songs enjoy a long history of repudiation. Dabney’s remarks also address our present controversies.
“Singing is unquestionably a scriptural means of grace, and good singing is a very efficient one. But in order that the church may retain the blessings of good singing, the privilege which Mr. Sankey and his imitators claim, of importing their own lyrics into God’s worship, must be closely watched. That saying has been quoted in favor of Mr. Sankey’s ‘ministry of song,’ which has been assigned to Lord Macaulay and to Sir. W. Scott, and to Thomas Moore, ‘Let me make the balads of a people, and I care not who makes their laws.’
“We cite that very principle to condemn the approaching license of so-called sacred song. Dr. Nettleton was wont to say that he could cause a company of people to ‘sing themselves into the doctrines of the gospel more easily than he could preach them into it.’ Then it is even more important that the church courts should use their authority of deciding what shall be sung than of securing the qualification and orthodoxy of its preachers.
“Dr. Nettleton took the liberty of compiling and using his ‘Village Hymns’ in public worship. His learning, sanctified genius and experience excused the act in him. If the same license is to be usurped by every self-appointed chorister, we shall in the end have a mass of corrupting religious poetry against which the church will have to wage a sore contest. Our children will then learn, to their cost, how legitimate and valuable was the restriction which we formerly saw in the lyrical liturgies of the old Protestant churches, expressed by the imprimatur of their supreme courts, ‘Appointed to be sung in churches.‘
“The most that can be said of Mr. Sankey’s developments in this direction is, that they do not appear to have introduced positive error as yet, and that they exhibit no worse traits than a marked inferiority of matter and style to the established hymnals of the leading churches. The most danger thus far apparent is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, in portions suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented with the jingle of ‘vain repetitions’ [emphasis mine].
“What shall we gain by giving our people these ephemeral rhymes in place of the immortal lyrics of Moses, David, Isaiah, Watts, and Cowper, so grand in their rhythm and melody, so pure in taste, and, above all, so freighted with compact and luminous truth? ‘The old wine is better.'” *
Although Dabney’s words here are at many points obviously directed towards his Presbyterian co-laborers, I think he has many good points for us to consider. How I wish the evangelical leaders of the past would have heeded these words of Dabney, and with courage and discernment censored these songs from Christian worship! This foul tree should have been severed at the root, before it grew into the pagan grove we now have in the places dedicated to proclaiming the gospel.
*Robert L. Dabney, “Lay Preaching,” in Discussions, 3 vols (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1982), 2:94-95.